"Genre is a Chessboard"
An interview with Rian Johnson
Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012
Updated: Saturday, September 29, 2012 21:09
A native Californian, Rian Johnson has been studying film for as long as he can remember. His first film, Brick put him on the map as a unique and talented writer/director to watch (Johnson, at least thus far, has always written the films he directs). His next film, three years later, The Brothers Bloom went largely unnoticed. Both films offered a unique version of storytelling, Brick with its modern pseudo-noir feel and The Brothers Bloom with a quirky, heist sort of feel. Now, after another four years, Looper is Johnson's most mainstream film and another jump to a different genre where Johnson can flex his writing and directing muscles and try something new.
“Rian and I first met nearly ten years ago,” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the film's lead actor. “It wasn’t too long after we shot Brick that he started telling me about his idea for Looper. He ended up writing the lead character for me, which is the first time that’s ever happened to me as an actor, so to play that was a great honor.” Johnson said he wanted to make a film focused on morality and choice, which is exactly what the time travel adventure does.
The Suffolk Voice talked to Johnson about his experiences filming Looper and what inspired him.
You've been working with idea for a while and wrote the script ten years ago. What kind of changes did you feel it needed after you’ve grown since then?
“When I wrote it, I was kind of going through a Philip K Dick phase. I’ve had the idea in my head for so long.” Johnson explained that the big gap of time in his life, and all the experiences that added to it, parallel to the older version of Joe judging the younger. It made each version of the character independent, despite being the same guy. “We experience both sides of that from different sides of the coin.”
How has making a major film enhanced your directing skills?
“You learn so much with everything you make, feature or short. You try to be more disciplined with writing and rewriting, trying to get it as honed and clear as possible. Directing wise? I feel like you just constantly grow, coming into each process with your eyes open.” Working with great actors and being ready to learn from them is an important thing as well, Johnson emphasized. “There was so much I learned from this movie; I couldn’t even break it down. It was kind of like going to film school. But it always is.”
You had the entire movie completely in your head. Did the final product turn out how you envisioned it?
James Stern was quoted as saying: “The movie was completely in Rian’s head. He knows exactly how he wants to cut the film, how he wants the film to look. He knows every shot, every day.”
Johnson's response? “That’s very kind of Jim to say, but it's also inaccurate. I have a vision in my head for how the scenes are going to play. You show up with your storyboard and a lot of ideas, but you have to be open to ideas and how things don’t go as planned.” Johnson said that the most important thing in a film like this, with these actors, is fluidity. “That’s another thing I really learned from this movie.”
How did you design the time travel?
Johnson wanted to make it a little easier on himself, to avoid focusing solely on the mechanics of science fiction. He went to TERMINATOR: “Characters don’t deal with time travel, but the consequences. A one-way road into time travel.” It was important to Johnson to think his way around the time line in order for the time travel to make sense for storytelling sake and for the audience. The same way Future Joe's body changed based on Present Joe's actions, his memory started to shift and change as well. These were the consequences.
How does having a different budget change the movie?
Looper was made as an independent film from the beginning, allowing Johnson to focus on the exact film he wanted to make. Sony Pictures picked up the film later, to distribute to audiences. “It was the same setup as [The Brothers Bloom] and Brick, and no studio commitment. The bump up in budget made sense for what this movie was. If you’re making an [independent movie], it doesn’t need that kind of budget.” That said, Johnson admitted that he would love to work with a studio to make a film bigger if the film was appropriate to a larger budget.
There are so many sequels and remakes in this world. How is it to compete by bringing in original content?
“There is a sense from a business point of view that the audience isn’t snapping stuff up that isn’t interesting. I think there is a hunger out there for [original content].” Working more in the studio, even as an independent filmmaker, Johnson felt that the right thing was never to make a film just because it is popular or the trend right now. Of course, this is from a writer-director who has never made a sequel, a remake, or a studio film. “This is the biggest film I’ve done and I didn’t even do it with a studio.”
What was your thought process in regards to casting?
“I wrote the film with Joe [Gordon-Levitt] in mind, but I thought Bruce Willis had so much of his acting style to bring to the genre.” This is the third film Willis has made wherein he time travels to meet a younger version of himself, let alone his action pedigree. This is also the third collaboration between Johnson and Gordon-Levitt, with Gordon-Levitt appearing in both of Johnson's prior films.
Johnson cast the two actors before really giving a thought to their appearances and making it believable. “Then we had to bring in the makeup,” he stated as matter-of-fact. The director insisted that, at the end of the day, Gordon-Levitt's acting like Willis “really brings it home.” The two studied each others' mannerisms and facial expressions, something which is clearly witnessed in the film.